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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Political and Social Thought to the Left of College Station

Congressman Bill Flores joined the Congressional Republicans in the House of Representatives in voting to repeal health care reform. A law that among other things bars insurance companies from denying coverage to applicants on the basis of pre-existing conditions, requires insurance companies to spend at least 80 percent of their premium revenues on medical costs, and enables children to stay on their parents' policies until they turn 26 and closes the "donut hole" in the Medicare drug plan.

However, the most interesting effect of voting to repeal health care reform is that Flores is also voting to increase the budget deficit. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reports that the law will reduce annual deficits by a cumulative $143 billion through 2019 and $230 billion through 2021. Meaning Flores voted to increase the deficit by $230 billion over ten years. During an interview with Bloomberg, Flores said that one of the priorities for any piece of legislation was what it did to “balance the budget.” After making government spending and the deficit a focal point of his campaign against Democrat Chet Edwards, Flores has voted for what he campaigned against.

After voting to repeal health care reform, which will extend coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans, Flores then voted against repealing his own government health care. That’s right. While voting to prevent millions of Americans from receiving health care through government subsidies, Flores voted to ensure that he maintains his health care through a government subsidy.

By the way Congressman Flores, the Texas Department of Insurance issued a report last week saying that health care reform will make it easier for many Texas families to get health coverage. It seems as though that our new Congressman is going to stand in lockstep behind the political agenda that has been put forth by Congressional Republicans, and ignore the real policy implications and the affects that that agenda has on Texas families.

Headlines

Local News
Survey To Tally Homeless in the Brazos Valley

According to an article in the Bryan-College Station Eagle, it takes several months of planning to organize a survey of the homeless in Brazos and seven surrounding counties. But it's worth it, organizers say. This week a team of up to 50 volunteers set out to survey the homeless, both in and out of shelters, with the aim of collecting updated information on their number, their families and reasons they have no permanent residence. Such a survey is required once every two years by the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, which uses the information in determining the level of funding Texas will receive. Alsie Bond, president of the Brazos Valley Coalition for the Homeless, said she's noticed a positive change locally in public awareness of homelessness, as seen in the growing number of inquires from the public about the coalition and the opening of the new Twin City Mission center. The coalition's survey included questions on respondents' age, education, ability to work, job status, any alcohol or drug abuse or mental illnesses, military experience, how long they have been homeless and where they spent the night that night.

Local Politics
College Station City Council Recall Signatures Validated

Although their terms do not expire for more than a year, College Station Mayor Nancy Berry and two City Council members likely will be forced to defend their seats because an anti-annexation group gathered enough signatures to require a recall election. The Bryan-College Station Eagle reports that city officials said the charter requires each petition be signed by a number of qualified electors equal to at least 40 percent of the total number of votes cast for the office in question. Under state law, signatures by unregistered voters or non-residents were disqualified. Five petitioners with SaveWellborn.org -- a group of College Station residents fighting the annexation of their neighbor to the south – obtained the required number of signatures. City Secretary Sherry Mashburn presented the official certification of the signatures during a council meeting this week. The city's charter, which does not require a reason to be given for a recall election, allows for the mayor and two council members to resign from their office five days following that council meeting. Should one or more opt not to resign by that fifth day, Feb. 1, a recall election is expected to be ordered at a Feb. 10 council meeting. City officials said the charter specifies that an election should be held 30 to 60 days after the petition is presented to the council, but state law requires it to be held on the next uniform election date, which is May 14.

Texas A&M News
Study Finds Texas A&M Had $3.7 Billion Economic Impact Locally

According to a press release by Texas A&M, the economic impact of Texas A&M University and other members of The Texas A&M University System based locally expanded by more than $213.4 million in 2010 and is now estimated to surpass $3.7 billion annually, an all-time high. That’s the finding of an in-house study conducted by Texas A&M’s Division of Finance upon the request of President R. Bowen Loftin. The study shows that Texas A&M and other locally headquartered members of the A&M System had at least a direct impact of almost $1.5 billion on College Station, Bryan and the surrounding area during 2010—an increase of more than $85.3 million compared to the previous year. With the addition of the multiplier effect—reflecting the number of times a dollar is spent and re-spent as it passes through the local economy—the total impact reaches the estimated $3.73 billion level. The local economic impact of the university’s students—whose numbers increased by 427 over the fall 2009 level—was estimated to be approximately $464.5 million, for an increase of more than $38.6 million. Major categories for student expenditures include food and housing, clothing, school supplies and recreation.

Texas News
Special Interests Donate Millions After Texas Election

After the votes were tallied and the winners announced in last November's elections, more than $13.4 million poured into the campaign coffers of the 181 winning Texas legislators and the state's top two elected officials. The Houston Chronicle reports that fven if one subtracts the combined $2.1 million raised by Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, that still means special interests gave members of the Legislature an amount of money equal to the annual income of about 234 Texas families. Late-train legislative money almost always is associated with some sort of legislative initiative, the money is given to legislators to "get well" with victors when a group has backed a losing candidate, to be "remembered" by lawmakers as agendas move forward and to introduce lobby teams to legislators. Legislators and state officials are not allowed to raise money during the regular legislative session. So, the late-train money this year was raised between Nov. 3 and Dec. 11, the cut-off date. More than three-quarters of the money came into the politicians' campaign accounts from business interests, labor unions, trial lawyers, higher education supporters and lobbyists who stand to benefit from or be harmed by legislative actions.

Texas Politics
Texas Senate Passes GOP-Backed Voter ID Bill

According to an article in the Dallas Morning News, with a strong push from Republicans and over the vigorous objections of Democrats, the Senate this week approved legislation requiring all but elderly Texans to show a photo ID before voting. Most of the proposed amendments to the bill — offered by Democrats — were rejected during several hours of debate, but one change found bipartisan support. That added a state concealed handgun license to the list of photo IDs that would meet the requirement of the legislation. In the end, the measure was approved 19-11, with all Republicans backing it and all but one absent Democrat voting no. The legislation moves to the House, which also is expected to pass it thanks to the huge majority of Republicans in the lower chamber. Two years ago, when the House was almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, a Senate voter ID bill was bottled up and never reached the House floor. Excluded from the photo requirement are voters 70 and older as of the end of this year. They will remain under current law and be asked to show only a voter registration card. Democrats warned that the bill will run into trouble under the federal Voting Rights Act, designed to protect minority voting rights in several southern states — including Texas — and Alaska, Arizona and some urban areas. Under that law, the U.S. Justice Department must review all changes in election laws in those states.

National News
Study Finds Auto Bailout Saved 1.4 Million Jobs

A new study by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor concludes that the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler in 2009, with $85 billion in taxpayer money going to the two companies to help them survive the restructuring process of managed bankruptcies, saved 1.4 million jobs. The Michigan Messenger reports that most of the jobs — 1.14 million — were saved in 2009, during the low-point of the industry’s severe downturn. But another 314,400 were saved in 2010. The net impact to the federal government—in terms of changes in transfer payments, social security receipts and personal income taxes—was $21.6 billion in 2009 and $7 billion in 2010. But that is merely the tip of the iceberg. The cost to state and local governments for the sudden increase in Medicaid, unemployment benefits, loss of property taxes and other consequences of allowing the two companies to fail would have been even higher. Add in the $29 billion cost of taking over the pensions of the two companies by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation and the effect of another wave of foreclosures that would have been triggered and the bailout was a bargain.

War & Peace
Number of US Casualties From Roadside Bombs in Afghanistan Skyrockets

According to an article in the Washington Post, the number of U.S. troops killed by roadside bombs in Afghanistan soared by 60 percent last year, while the number of those wounded almost tripled, new U.S. military statistics show. All told, 268 U.S. troops were killed by the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in 2010, about as many as in the three previous years combined, according to the figures, obtained by The Washington Post. More than 3,360 troops were injured, an increase of 178 percent over the year before. Military officials said an increase in attacks was expected, given the surge in U.S. and NATO troops, as well as the intensified combat. Even so, the spike comes despite a fresh wave of war-zone countermeasures, including mine-clearing machines, fertilizer-sniffing dogs and blimps with sophisticated spy cameras. The U.S. military has struggled for years to find an antidote to the homemade explosives. IEDs - concocted primarily of fertilizer and lacking metal or electronic parts that would make them easier to detect - are the largest single cause of casualties for U.S. troops, by a wide margin.

Foreign Policy
Federal Inquiry Under Way of No-Bid Contract in Afghanistan

The government watchdog of U.S. contracting in Afghanistan is scrutinizing a sole-source contract that was awarded to a firm even though it was widely criticized for its construction of a power plant project in Kabul. The McClatchy News Service reports that in November, the U.S. Agency for International Development awarded Black & Veatch the contract, valued at $266 million, despite complaints about its handling of a power plant that were detailed in a series of stories by McClatchy over the last year. The special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction announced that he is now looking into the agreement during Monday's hearing before the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new contract includes work on a different power plant and the refurbishing of the Kajaki Dam, major pillars of an effort to revive the economy in southern Afghanistan's Taliban strongholds. The USAID exempted the company from competing for the work, claiming that such a process would "have an adverse effect on programs." Wartime contracting commissioners, however, criticized USAID's handling of the award, pointing out that the agency had told a competitor a year ago that it planned to bid the project out.

Veterans Issues
Up to 35% of Wounded Soldiers Addicted to Drugs

According to an article in USA Today, medical officials estimate that 25% to 35% of about 10,000 ailing soldiers assigned to special wounded-care companies or battalions are addicted or dependent on drugs — particularly prescription narcotic pain relievers, according to an Army inspector general's report made public this week. The report also found that these formations known as Warrior Transition Units — created after reports detailed poorly managed care at Walter Reed Army Hospital— have become costly way stations where ill, injured or wounded soldiers can wait more than a year for a medical discharge. Some soldiers have become so irate about the delays in leaving the Army that doctors, nurses and other medical staff say they have been assaulted in their offices and threatened, or had their private cars damaged or tires flattened, the report says. About three out of four soldiers in the warrior units either leave the Army or active duty. After nine years of war, the Army medical-discharge process has become a bureaucratic backlog where nearly 7,800 soldiers wait for their cases to be reviewed. That's almost a 50% increase since 2007, according to the investigation.

Economy
Inquiry Concludes Financial Meltdown Was Avoidable

The 2008 financial crisis was an “avoidable” disaster caused by widespread failures in government regulation, corporate mismanagement and heedless risk-taking by Wall Street, according to the conclusions of a federal inquiry. The New York Times reports that the commission that investigated the crisis casts a wide net of blame, faulting two administrations, the Federal Reserve and other regulators for permitting a calamitous concoction: shoddy mortgage lending, the excessive packaging and sale of loans to investors and risky bets on securities backed by the loans. While the panel, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, accuses several financial institutions of greed, ineptitude or both, some of its gravest conclusions concern government failings, with embarrassing implications for both parties. But the panel was itself divided along partisan lines, which could blunt the impact of its findings. Many of the conclusions have been widely described, but the synthesis of interviews, documents and testimony, along with its government imprimatur, give the report — to be released on this week as a 576-page book — a conclusive sweep and authority.

Education
Report Finds American Students Do Poorly in Science

According to a report by New America Media, very few students have the advanced skills that could lead to careers in science and technology, according to results of a national exam released this week that education leaders called alarming. Only 1 percent of fourth-grade and 12th-grade students, and 2 percent of eighth-graders scored in the highest group on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test known as the Nation's Report Card. Less than half were considered proficient, with many more showing minimal science knowledge. The results also show a stark achievement gap, with only 10 percent of black students proficient in science in the fourth grade, compared to 46 percent of whites. At the high school level, results were even more bleak, with 71 percent of black students scoring below the basic knowledge level, and just 4 percent proficient.Fifty-eight percent of Hispanic 12th-grade students scored below basic, as did 21 percent of whites.

Science & Technology
UT Scientists Seek Means to Burn Coal Cleanly

In a four-story test plant just behind a warehouse-like research building in north Austin, University of Texas researchers are hoping for a revolutionary breakthrough to the question of how to continue to burn coal without contributing to global warming. The Austin American-Statesman reports that the mini power plant, only big enough to theoretically power a few homes, pipes carbon dioxide in and captures it with the aid of some fancy stack filters and a variety of solvents. The aim is to capture about 90 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by the mini-facility and then to scale up the project in a half-dozen years to a commercial plant. The success or failure of this experiment, along with several others by UT researchers, could help spell the future of coal policy in the United States. Playing a prominent role in paying for and organizing the projects are coal-burning utilities, who have a lot to win or lose if the researchers can show that carbon emissions can be captured and piped underground for storage. Though carbon limits have stalled in Congress, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is setting up rules to limit carbon emissions from refineries and power plants.

Environment
Study Finds Oil Dispersants Lingered Deep Under Gulf

According to a report by TruthOut.org, an active ingredient in the chemical dispersants pumped deep into the Gulf of Mexico after BP's oil spill didn't break down, but remained for several months in a deep layer of oil and gas, according to a study published this week. The study provides the first data about what happened to the 800,000 gallons of dispersants that were pumped into the oil and gas that gushed a mile below the surface from the broken BP well. Additional studies are under way to find out if there were toxic effects from the dispersants in the deep water. Elizabeth Kujawinski, a chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, and a team of colleagues analyzed samples from three research cruises: two near the wellhead while the oil was gushing, in late May to early June and again in mid-June, and a third in September in a location southwest of the well, where currents had carried a deep plume of oil and gas. The scientists found a key compound of the dispersants, dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate or DOSS, in concentrations of parts per million in May and June. They found lower concentrations, in parts per billion, in September, after the well was capped on July 15 and the use of dispersants ended.

Human Rights
Human Trafficking May Be Widespread in South Florida

For up to 16 hours daily, they worked at posh country clubs across South Florida, then returned to deceptively quiet houses in Boca Raton where they were captives -- and in the most dreadful cases, fed rotten chicken and vegetables, forced to drink muriatic acid and repeatedly denied medical help. McClatchy News Service reports that the 39 servers, lured to the United States by the cliché of a decent dollar and a promising next chapter, instead became imported modern-day slaves two continents away from their homeland. Their story repeats in plain sight most every day in South Florida: barely paid -- or unpaid -- people forced to toil in fields, work as domestics in hotels and restaurants or in the sex industry, an out-sized regional problem authorities are emphasizing in January, Human Trafficking Awareness Month. While difficult to pluck the numbers from a landscape of silence and fear, federal, state and local authorities know South Florida is among the nation's three top capitals of human trafficking, a $36 billion industry defined as the recruitment and harboring of a person for labor or services through force, fraud or coercion. South Florida's mix of cosmopolitan lifestyles, rural landscapes and tourism makes it a natural entry point for human traffickers. To fight the rising statistics and heighten awareness, a coalition of law enforcement and government agencies formed the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force in 2008, charged with monitoring a wide swath of the state, from Key West to Fort Pierce. That year, ICE initiated 432 investigations resulting in 126 convictions on human trafficking charges. In 2009, the number of investigations jumped to 566 and 165 convictions.

Reproductive Rights
Abortion Does Not Increase Risk of Mental Health Problems

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, women do not suffer mental health problems such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of having an abortion, researchers reported this week. The study, published by Danish scientists in the New England Journal of Medicine, adds to a growing body of scientific literature that has failed to find that abortion causes psychological problems, as some abortion opponents have asserted. By taking advantage of a national registry that includes medical records of all Danish citizens, the authors were able to compare the rate of psychiatric visits in the months before and after abortion or childbirth. Researchers followed 84,620 girls and women who had a first-trimester abortion and 280,930 who had a first childbirth from the start of 1995 to the end of 2007. In Denmark, abortion is legal until the 12th week of gestation. None of the women in the study had a history of mental disorders prior to the time period studied. Visits to a mental health professional were assessed for the nine months before the abortion or childbirth and for one year after. Women who had abortions had higher rates of mental health disorders overall. But there was little difference in psychiatric visits before and after the abortion: 1% had contact with a mental health professional before the abortion compared with 1.5% after. Women who gave birth had lower rates of mental health problems. However, visits for psychiatric healthcare increased after the birth: 0.3% had a mental health visit before childbirth compared with 0.7% in the year following. Though women who have abortions may tend to have more mental problems, this propensity predates the abortion and may even be a factor that makes termination of pregnancy more likely, the authors concluded.

GLBT Issues
GAO Report Finds Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy Was Costly

The U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays serving openly in the military cost the Pentagon more than $193 million over six years, the Government Accountability Office reported this week. The McClatchy News Service reports in the first-ever public accounting of the cost of the Clinton-era policy, which remains in effect despite its December repeal, the GAO determined that the bulk of that expenditure, $185.7 million, went toward recruiting and training replacements for the 3,664 gay service members expelled during those years. The Pentagon spent another $7.7 million on administrative costs. The report also suggested that the cost on military readiness of the policy had been high. It said 79 percent of soldiers expelled from the Army under "don't ask, don't tell" held jobs that were critical to military operations. In the Navy, 760 sailors expelled spoke languages considered critical to U.S. military operations, including Arabic, Serbian and Haitian Creole, the report said. Advocates of repealing "don't ask, don't tell" hailed the report, saying it bolstered their position that barring gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military had been costly both financially and to the nation's military readiness. They urged the Pentagon to move quickly to certify that it was ready to lift the ban, something required by the repeal law President Barack Obama signed in December.

Friday, January 28, 2011

This Week on Information Underground

This week on Information Underground our studio guest is Shelly Blair, publisher of the blog Fair & Feminist. Our topics of conversation will include current events surrounding the feminist movement, women’s equality, and reproductive rights.

Listen to Information Underground on 89.1FM KEOS on Sundays from 5-6pm after Tavis Smiley, for all the alternative news, politics, and commentary that you don’t hear in the mainstream media. To listen to Information Underground online and to listen to past episodes visit Information Underground on BlogTalkRadio. Tune in every week to hear headlines, interviews, and political and social thought to the Left of College Station.

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Headlines

Local News
Bryan Texas Utilities Receives Clean Rating After Financial Audit

According to an article in the Bryan-College Station Eagle, Bryan Texas Utilities received a clean rating last week in an audit of its financial reporting. The audit said that BTU fairly reported its financial results for its urban and rural services. A similar audit is performed every year, and BTU has always received a clean rating. The company that performed the audit, Weaver and Tidwell, LLP, is also reviewing the management structure of BTU at the request of the Bryan City Council. Dan Wilkerson, BTU General Manager, said that audit is still being performed and "it will not be very long" until it is ready. The council requested that audit amid controversy last year over how much financial information BTU has made available to city staff and the public. BTU is owned by the city of Bryan, but has its own oversight board. Then-City Manager David Watkins publicly complained over the summer that he wasn't receiving enough details about BTU's executive compensation and that it was allowed to operate with limited oversight from the city. He eventually resigned amid the controversy.

Local Politics
Neeley Named Interim College Station City Manager

The College Station City Council voted unanimously this week to appoint Assistant City Manager David Neeley as interim city manager. The Bryan-College Station Eagle reports that Neeley, 60, will assume the role on February 1st after current City Manager Glenn Brown retires on January 31st. Neeley will hold the job until the council hires someone to fill the position permanently. Neeley has worked at the city for two years. Prior to that, he was city manager of Sugar Land for 14 years. In College Station, he oversees the public works, water, capital projects and parks and recreation departments. Mayor Nancy Berry said that process is moving forward. The council, which is responsible for reviewing applicants and making a hire, has narrowed its choice down to three finalists. It will notify those who are no longer being considered and announce the names of the finalists next week. Berry said that the three remaining applicants include "internal and external candidates" who are all currently working at cities. Neeley confirmed that he has applied for the job, but said he wasn't sure if he is a finalist. The city of Bryan is also searching for a city manager after David Watkins' resignation over the summer. Bryan Texas Utilities Group Manager Kean Register has the interim role in that job.

Texas A&M News
Student Leadership Conference Displays Significance of One

According to an article in the Texas A&M University Battalion, the Southwestern Black Student Leadership Conference was created for the purpose of uniting students, presenters and advisers. Their goal was to address problems and issues that affected the black community and to develop solutions to those problems. This year's theme is The Image of Impact: A Reflection of a Leader and is meant to inspire individuals to realize the influence that just one person can make. The application of knowledge, culture, religion, family and community to address these issues is an important citizen development tool. The conference, which began this week and ends today, will provide workshops and presentations designed to develop strong leadership skills. The conference has been successful in expanding their influence throughout the years and is open to all college students. The career fair has also expanded to include more schools and companies that students can take into consideration when planning future graduate school options or job opportunities.

Texas News
Report Finds Texas Gave Away Billion to Business

Business tax breaks cost Texas $4.3 billion in the last state budget, a figure that amounts to about a third of the state's massive revenue shortfall, according to a legislative report obtained this week by the Associated Press. The report also found that local governments lost $235 billion in state property tax exemptions, including those given for elderly and disabled homeowners, according to the report prepared by the House Ways and Means Committee. A tally for sales tax exemptions - the state's biggest cash generator - was not available. One of the largest carve-outs was for the natural gas tax, which totaled about $1 billion a year in exemptions, according to the report. An exemption for bottled water sales amounted to a loss of about $250 million a year for the state, while an exemption for corporations with business interest in solar energy devices cost more than $1 million over the last two years. The committee prepared the report to address Republican House Speaker Joe Straus' charge to examine the exemptions and determine "how the current costs and benefits compare with the original legislative objectives," according to the report, which did not make recommendations about which tax exemptions should be repealed. The Legislature is struggling to make up for a $15 billion revenue shortfall. But with a new Republican House supermajority that has largely opposed tax increases, initial budget drafts assume no new revenue and propose massive cuts to state services like education and health care for the poor, elderly and disabled.

Texas Politics
Governor Perry List Voter ID and Balanced Budget Amendment as Priorities

According to an article in the American Independent, Governor Rick Perry has added voter photo ID and amending the U.S. Constitution to mandate a balanced federal budget to the list of emergency items for the 2011 legislative session, meaning lawmakers can begin considering those issues during the first 30 days of the session. While voter photo ID was a major source of controversy in the 2009 session — leading to Democratic filibustering in the House that killed dozens of other bills, including legislation to require women to undergo a sonogram before having an abortion — proposals to create a balanced budget amendment have only recently gained serious traction. As the Texas Independent has previously reported, state Rep. Richard Raymond (D-San Antonio) has long been a proponent of resolutions urging the federal government to create a balanced budget amendment. Additionally, state Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) has authored a resolution this session calling for a constitutional convention of the states in order to consider a balanced budget amendment. A constitutional convention of the states is one of the strategies outlined by the Texas Public Policy Foundation in its roadmap to combating federal authority, as the Texas Independent has reported. One of the main authors of the TPPF reports is former Solicitor General Ted Cruz, who has announced his intention to run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by the retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison.

National News
Verizon Challenges FCC's Net Neutrality Rules

Verizon says it has filed a court challenge to new federal regulations that prohibit broadband providers from interfering with Internet traffic flowing over their networks. National Public Radio reports that a divided Federal Communications Commission adopted the "network neutrality" rules last month. Verizon Communications Inc. filed the challenge this week in federal appeals court in the District of Columbia. The new rules prohibit phone and cable companies from favoring or discriminating against Internet content and services that travel over their networks, including online calling services such as Skype, Internet video services such as Netflix and other applications that compete with their core businesses. In its court filing, Verizon argues that the FCC overstepped its authority in adopting the regulations. The new rules are also expected to be challenged by Republicans in Congress.

War & Peace
US Drone Strike Claims Lives of Pakistan Civilians

According to a report by Al Jazeera, Pakistani intelligence officials say that a possible second US drone strike has killed two more suspected foreign fighters in northwestern Pakistan. The attack came several hours after a drone fired two missiles at a vehicle and a house in Doga Mada Khel village, located near North Waziristan's main town of Miranshah, killing at least five armed fighters. The town is a frequent target of the strikes, and the country's tribal region bordering Afghanistan, is increasingly seen as battleground in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. According to officials, the second drone fired two missiles at the suspected fighters as they were riding on a motorcycle in the same village in the North Waziristan tribal area. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. As a policy, the United States does not confirm drone attacks, but its military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operating in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy them in the region. A similar strike killed at least three people in North Waziristan on January 12. On January 1, a string of attacks killed at least 15 people and destroyed a Taliban compound, according to Pakistani officials.

Foreign Policy
Afghan Officials Cite Security Firms With US Ties for Violations

The Afghan government has accused several prominent private security companies, including some that work with the U.S. government, of committing "major offenses," a move that U.S. officials fear could hasten their departure from the country. The Washington Post reports that a list compiled by Afghan officials cites 16 companies, including several American and British firms, for unspecified serious violations and seven others for having links to high-ranking Afghan officials, according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post. A decision to ban the major violators and those that have relationships with senior Afghan officials would affect firms that provide about 800 guards for the U.S. Agency for International Development projects and about 3,000 who work on military construction projects for the coalition, said a senior U.S. official. Among those listed as major offenders are Triple Canopy, based in Reston; Washington-based Blue Hackle; and the British firm G4S, the parent company of ArmorGroup North America, which provides security for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Also listed were the British companies Global Strategies Group, which guards the Kabul airport, as well as Control Risks and Aegis. The list included nine firms deemed "medium" offenders, 11 with "minor" offenses and nine, including Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater, with no offenses detected.

Economy
2010 Was The Weakest Year For Home Sales Since 1997

According to an article in the Huffington Post, the number of people who bought previously owned homes last year fell to the lowest level in 13 years. But home sales in December jumped to fastest pace in seven months. The National Association of Realtors says sales dropped 4.8 percent to 4.91 million units in 2010. That was slightly lower than 2008, which had been the weakest level since 1997. Home prices have been depressed by a record number of foreclosures and high unemployment. Many potential buyers held off on purchases last year, fearful that prices hadn't bottomed out yet. The poor year for sales ended strong in December. Buyers snapped up homes at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.28 million units, an increase of 12.8 percent from November and the strongest sales pace since last May. Still, many economists believe it will take years for sales to rise to a normal level of around 6 million units a year. And some say 2011 will be even weaker than last year because more foreclosures are expected and home prices are likely to keep falling through the first six months of the year. The foreclosure crisis has left a glut of unsold houses on the market. That has played a major role in lowering home prices.

Education
For-Profit Colleges Sue Over New Regulations

The Association of Private-Sector Colleges and Universities has filed a lawsuit trying to undo new U.S. regulations aimed at for-profit schools. United Press International reports that the group represents about 1,500 schools that are privately owned or run by publicly traded companies. A complaint filed this week in U.S. District Court in Washington alleges the rules, which take effect July 1, are unconstitutional. The regulations would require states to have stronger regulation of for-profit colleges whose students are eligible for federal grants or loans. Other regulations bar for-profit schools from compensating recruiters based simply on how many students they sign up and give the government more power to penalize deceptive marketing. Another regulation, "the gainful employment rule," which is still being drafted, is not included in the lawsuit. The regulation aims to increase loan repayment rates and would make college programs ineligible for student loans if they do not have a good track record on job placement.

Climate Change
New Climate Data Shows Earth Continuing to Warm

According to a report by Reuters News Service, last year tied for the hottest year on record, confirming a long-term warming trend which will continue unless greenhouse gas emissions are cut, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on this week. The first 10 years of the millennium proved to be the hottest decade since records began in the 19th century. 2010 was also marked by further melting of Arctic ice -- in December its extent was at its lowest on record, the WMO said -- and by extreme weather, including Russia's heatwave and devastating floods in Pakistan. Rising temperatures, already about 0.8 degree Celsius above pre-industrial times, mean the world will struggle to limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, a target agreed by almost 200 nations at U.N. talks last month in Mexico.

Civil Rights
Obama Administration May Resume Guantanamo Tribunals

The prospect of the United States charging Guantanamo Bay detainees before new military tribunals has unleashed a torrent of protests from human-rights groups. Al Jazeeras that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would soon lift an order blocking new cases from being initiated against detainees in special courts known as military commissions, a ban President Barack Obama had ordered on his first day in office. The Pentagon would not immediately confirm the report. Three detainees will be referred for new charges, including Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, accused of having organised the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 sailors in Yemen. Al-Nashiri is among three Guantanamo detainees US authorities acknowledge were tortured. He was subjected to the simulated drowning technique of waterboarding, as well as threatened with a gun and a power drill. "Trying Guantanamo detainees in a system that is designed to ensure convictions, not fair trials, strikes a major blow to any efforts to restore the rule of law," the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement. It urged the Obama administration to try the suspects in US federal courts, which have "well-established rules of procedure and evidence".

Immigrant Rights
Next Wave of Immigration Legislation Introduced in Arizona

According to an article in New America Media, as dozens of states across the country propose immigration legislation similar to Arizona’s SB 1070, analysts are looking at new legislation expected to be introduced by Arizona lawmakers this year—to see what might lie ahead for other states. Earlier this month, Republican legislators unveiled a bill that would re-interpret the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, to deny birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. The bill has not yet been introduced for a vote as legislators cite budget priorities, although other measures likely to affect ethnic communities in Arizona are already on the fast track and being discussed at the State Capitol. Among those is a Senate resolution that would ask voters to change the Arizona Constitution to prevent state judges from considering international law and other cultures in their judicial decisions. According to its sponsor, Republican Senator Linda Gray, the bill is not a response to immigration concerns, but about protecting the rights of women. Gray has the support of 20 other Republicans, including SB 1070’s creator, Senator Russell Pearce.

Women’s Issues
Report Says Breastfeeding a Benefit to Cancer Survivors

Women who have survived childhood cancer could benefit if they breastfeed their own children, according to research. BBC News reports that cancer survivors are often at increased risk of conditions such as obesity and weak bones. Scientists from St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis concluded that breastfeeding could help neutralise those risks. The review appears in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship. Progress in cancer biology and therapies means that greater numbers of patients who get cancer in childhood are surviving. However, some groups of survivors are at an increased risk of health problems later in life - known as "late effects". The researchers examined previous studies on the impact of breastfeeding and on the long-term health effects of surviving childhood cancer.

GLBT Issues
Gay Marriage Could Move Forward in Some US States

According to a report by Reuters News Service, a handful of U.S. states are poised to take up the issue of gay marriage afresh, due largely to incoming lawmakers who may tip the balance in favor of the controversial measure. In Maryland, New York and Rhode Island in particular, the legalization of same-sex marriages is moving ahead, organizers and supporters say. The November 2010 election brought a "significant shift," especially in the Senate, said Madaleno, one of Maryland's seven openly gay legislators, three of whom are newly elected. Even more important, Maryland's Senate Judicial Proceedings committee, which has prevented gay marriage bills from reaching a floor vote, has several new, sympathetic members, said Morgan Meneses-Sheets of Equality Maryland, an advocacy group. Majority leaders of both houses plan to co-sponsor gay marriage measures. Gov. Martin O'Malley, whose opponent was against gay marriage, has pledged to sign such a bill, Nationwide, after the Congressional vote to repeal the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy which expelled thousands of gay people from the U.S. military, gay rights advocates are pushing ahead on marriage.

Race & Racism
Study Finds Significant Anti-Gay Discrimination in Utah

A report from UCLA's Williams Institute set to be distributed to Utah's 104 legislators this week morning found significant anti-gay bias and discrimination in the state, which is home to the Mormon Church. The study, which is based on an Equality Utah survey of about 1,000 LGBT Utahns, found forty-four percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual Utahns and sixty-six percent of transgender people report that they had been fired, denied a job, or not promoted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Authors of the study estimate that for every 10,000 LGBT employees, 5 complaints of sexual orientation discrimination would be filed each year. Same-sex workers in Utah also made less than heterosexual counterparts, with gay men making 20 percent less, according to the study. There were also reports of verbal and physical harassment. Without protection from the government or a workplace policy within a company, there is very little recourse for an LGBT individual.

Friday, January 21, 2011

This Week on Information Underground (Take Two)

This week on Information Underground our studio guest is Dr. Gary Potter, who is a member of the Citizens for Wellborn. Our topics of conversation will include the issues surrounding the possible annexation of Wellborn, and the campaign to recall five College Station City Council members.

Listen to Information Underground on 89.1FM KEOS on Sundays from 5-6pm after Tavis Smiley, for all the alternative news, politics, and commentary that you don’t hear in the mainstream media. To listen to Information Underground online and to listen to past episodes visit Information Underground on BlogTalkRadio. Tune in every week to hear headlines, interviews, and political and social thought to the Left of College Station.

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Political and Social Thought to the Left of College Station

17th District’s New Congressman in the 112th Congress

The 112th Congress was gaveled into session this week, and the Texas 17th Congressional District has a new Congressman in Washington. Republican Bill Flores defeated incumbent Democrat Chet Edwards in November; the first successful Republican after a long line of challengers to the Democrat who held one of the most conservative Congressional districts in Texas.

According to an article in the Dallas Morning News, Flores is confident of his and the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives ability to affect policy change. "We're 20 percent of the House. We're over 30 percent of the Republican conference. I'm not an army of one. I'm an army of many. I feel confident we'll hold together."

That remains to be seen. Newly elected Speaker John Boehner may have significant problems holding together a Republican caucus that will have several ideological divisions. One of the test to the new Speaker’s ability to hold together the Republican caucus will be the vote to raise the debt ceiling; a vote which many of the more conservative Congressman have pledge to vote against.

The Houston Chronicle reported that Flores said that “if the federal government was not spending beyond its means then we would not be having this vote [to raise the debt ceiling," and that he would not vote to raise the debt ceiling unless changes are made in the federal spending. "It will have to have substantial changes in the way we do business and substantial revisions in the budget process.”

Bloomberg interviewed Flores yesterday outside the Capitol, during which he said that his priorities as a new Congressman were legislation that creates private sector jobs, that grows a robust economy, and that balances the budget:



Republican leaders have been planning a legislative push that includes cuts to the Federal budget that amounts to $100 billion dollars. However, Flores said in to the Dallas Morning News that it "is not nearly enough when you're talking about a $1.1 trillion deficit. ... The voters are very impatient. I am very impatient to set the ship on a better course. But I do realize it's a very big ship. We're going to have to be pushing at the tiller pretty hard."

Of course Republicans have not announced any specific cuts to the budget, but just what cuts that they will not make to the budget. The New York Times reports that Republican lawmakers have said that they will not cut discretionary spending from the military, domestic security, or veterans programs. However, according to a report by Politico earlier this week, House Republicans have said that their budget challenge might require a cut of only $50 to $60 billion.

Flores was quoted by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as saying that being a part of the new Republican majority gives him and his colleagues the power to push their legislative agenda. “I think it gives us the resources for the huge mandate the American people want us to accomplish." Although, with a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democrat in the White House, it is likely that much of the legislation passed by Republicans in the House will not likely make it to the President’s desk and if it does could face the veto pen. While Republicans often said during the campaign the Congressional Democrats overreached, Republicans may have overpromised.

So far Congressman Flores has cosponsored three pieces of legislation including a proposal for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution of the United States, a resolution to repeal the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, and a resolution to repeal the expansion of information reporting requirements for payments of $600 or more to corporations. It is going to be interesting to watch what kind of legislation Flores authors and it is going to be interesting how he votes on key pieces of legislation.

It is also going to be interesting to watch the reaction of his constituents in District 17 to his performance in Congress. Will redistricting affect Flores’ seat in Congress? Will Flores be able ensure the federal funding for Texas A&M that Edwards was able to provide? Will Flores’ lack of sonority affect his ability to craft pieces of major legislation? Will conservative activist put pressure on Flores to vote with the Tea Party backed lawmakers on their issues? For now there are only questions, and no answers.

Headlines

Local Politics
McMillan Commissions Poll of CS Residents on Big Issues

According to a report by KBTX Channel 3, continuing her public push back against major projects being discussed by College Station's elected leaders and staff, Councilmember Jana McMillan has released the results of a poll she says she personally commissioned. The Pulse Opinion Research poll shows a large majority of those surveyed are in favor of Wellborn residents getting a chance to vote on their fate, and that they should be allowed to incorporate. Other topics asked in the poll include a discussed Wolf Pen Creek water feature -- which McMillan also has publicly denounced -- and the opinions on the handling of citizens and their tax dollars by the council. All show majorities of negative feelings towards those items.

An analysis of the poll by Left of College Station has concluded that the poll could be characterized as a push poll, a poll that pushes the respondents in a certain direction to get a desired result. The questions were phrased and ordered in such a way to provoke a negative response from the respondent. Also, the likely voter model was a generic likely voter model, and in know way could be used to determine if the results of the survey show the opinions of likely voters in a recall election. For more analysis of the poll visit www.leftofcollegestation.com.

Texas A&M News
Texas A&M Board of Regents Spot Filled By Former Member

A member and former chair of the Texas A&M System governing board has resigned, and the governor's office picked a former board chair to replace him. The Bryan-College Station Eagle reports that Austin lawyer Bill Jones, who presided as board chair over the 2007 search for Texas A&M president that led to the selection of Elsa Murano, resigned last month to pursue other opportunities, though he declined to provide details. When asked whether the decision to resign was his own, he responded, "There's no one upset with me. I haven't created any issues or any friction at all. This is all very good, actually ... I'm seeking some other opportunities that hopefully will become available over the next few months." Replacing him will be Houston lawyer John D. White, who served on the A&M board from 2003 to 2009 and chaired the body from 2005 to 2007. His term will expire Feb. 1, 2015.

Texas News
EPA Temporarily Blocked From Taking Over Texas' Air Pollution Permits

According to an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., has temporarily blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from taking over air pollution permits in Texas. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued the stay this week. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott had asked the court to block the EPA from taking over permits starting Sunday until the court could review the case. The appeals court noted that order issuing the stay "should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits" of Abbott's motion. Last week, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to issue a stay that would delay the EPA's plans as Texas' lawsuit against the federal agency moved forward.

Texas Politics
Texas Legislature Convenes, Facing Hard Choices

The 82nd Texas Legislature convenes in Austin this week, and while it’s not as much fun as the circus — usually — it’s more important and does have its share of comedy and drama. The Texas Tribune reports that the subject matter is practically operatic: in the 140 days of their regular session, lawmakers must face down a multibillion-dollar shortfall, having made blanket promises not to raise taxes. They need to draw redistricting maps for seats in Congress, the Legislature and the State Board of Education — their most partisan enterprise of the decade. Expect a heated word or two over immigration legislation and border security, threats of major cuts to education and health and human services, and continuing struggles to keep up with the state’s transportation and criminal-justice concerns.

National News
Health Care Spending Increase is Smallest in 50 Years

According to a report by the McClatchy news service, U.S. health care spending in 2009 grew at the slowest rate in 50 years, as the recession and high unemployment caused outlays for nearly all medical goods and services to slow or decline, according to a new government report released this week. Unlike previous recessions, when spending for health services began to slow some two years after an economic downturn, the effect of the Great Recession was swift and profound on insurers, health care providers and patients in both 2008 and 2009. Total public and private spending for health services grew by 4 percent to $2.5 trillion, or $8,086 per person in 2009. That's up from $7,845 per person in 2008 when annual health outlays increased only 4.7 percent, which was the second-slowest growth rate in the last half a century, the Department of Health and Human Services reported. Fueling the spending slowdown in 2009 was a 3.2 percent decline in private health insurance enrollment as 6.3 million people lost job-based health coverage that year. That loss of private coverage also curbed growth in out-of-pocket spending by patients, many of whom delayed medical care because of a lack of cash. Both trends, in fact, caused spending for dental services to decline in 2009 for the first time ever.

National Politics
Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics

The shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and others at a neighborhood meeting in Arizona on Saturday set off what is likely to be a wrenching debate over anger and violence in American politics. The New York Times reports that while the exact motivations of the suspect in the shootings remained unclear, an Internet site tied to the man, Jared Lee Loughner, contained antigovernment ramblings. And regardless of what led to the episode, it quickly focused attention on the degree to which inflammatory language, threats and implicit instigations to violence have become a steady undercurrent in the nation’s political culture. Clarence W. Dupnik, the Pima County sheriff, seemed to capture the mood of the day at an evening news conference when he said it was time for the country to “do a little soul-searching.” Not since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 has an event generated as much attention as to whether extremism, antigovernment sentiment and even simple political passion at both ends of the ideological spectrum have created a climate promoting violence. The fallout seemed to hold the potential to upend the effort by Republicans to keep their agenda front and center in the new Congress and to alter the political narrative in other ways.

War & Peace
Stryker Soldier's Charges of Murdering Afghan Civilians Could Be Dropped

According to a report by the McClatchy news service, an investigating officer has recommended that the Army drop most of its case against one of the five Stryker soldiers accused of murdering civilians in southern Afghanistan last year. Specialist Michael Wagnon, 30, has maintained his innocence since he was confined at Joint Base Lewis-McChord amid accusations that he was part of a “kill team” in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division that murdered civilians for sport. In a December 10th report obtained by The News Tribune, Maj. Michael Liles found that the military doesn’t have enough evidence to prosecute Wagnon for the most serious charges the Army brought against him: murder, assault, possessing fragments of a human skull and trying to destroy evidence. Liles recommended that Wagnon be prosecuted for a conspiracy charge related to a March patrol during which soldiers in his platoon opened fire on unarmed Afghans. Wagnon still could face a court-martial over all of the charges. Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the senior Army officer at Lewis-McChord, has the final say about whether Wagnon should be prosecuted.

Foreign Policy
Only Quarter of Pakistan Aid Money Went Directly to Programs

In an effort to bring stability to the underdeveloped and vulnerable tribal areas of Pakistan, the U.S. government launched an ambitious $300 million development program in 2008. The Center for Public Integrity reports that an audit by the US Agency for International Development reveals how little progress was made in the wake of humanitarian emergencies, deteriorating security and possible misuse of funds. The FATA region of northwest Pakistan shares a rugged, porous border with Afghanistan and is susceptible to influence by extremists and foreign terrorists. Low literacy rates, unemployment, a weak economy and ineffective government contribute to the poor conditions. The USAID development program focused specifically on job creation, youth programs, and improving public opinion of the Pakistani government. The inspector general’s audit revealed that the program consistently fell short of its goals. Between 2008 and 2010, the program only met 7 percent to 19 percent of its two—year targets. In 2009, the U.S. government shifted its focus to humanitarian assistance and requested the nongovernmental organization engage in humanitarian aid, like distributing emergency kits to the growing number of displaced families in the region.

Economy
Unemployment Falls to 9.4 Percent But 260,000 Leave Labor Force

According to a report by TruthOut.org, The Labor Department reported that the unemployment rate fell to 9.4 percent in December, however much of the reason for the decline was a drop of 260,000 in the size of the labor force. The employment-to-population (EPOP) ratio inched up by 0.1 percentage points to 58.3 percent, but it is still 0.2 percentage points below the September level and just 0.1 percent above the low point for the downturn. The establishment survey showed the economy creating just 103,000 jobs in December. The 0.4 percentage-point drop in the unemployment rate was the largest since April of 1998, but this decline may just be an aberration. The 290,000 reported gain in employment is healthy, but inconsistent with so many people leaving the labor force. It is also worth noting that average weekly unemployment claims are still averaging more than 400,000. The economy did not start generating jobs at all following the last recession until weekly claims fell below 400,000 in 2003.

Education
Budget Woes May Toughen Rules for Students' TEXAS Grants

Texas' looming budget shortfall has prompted legislators to reconsider an idea it previously rejected — give students who meet tougher academic standards priority consideration for TEXAS Grants to help pay for college. The Houston Chronicle reports that proponents say the changes are necessary to ensure that increasingly limited state dollars go to poorer college students who are more likely to graduate from college. Currently, TEXAS Grants are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. The Towards Excellence, Access and Success Grant, better known as the TEXAS Grant, was established by the Legislature in 1999 to help students from poor families pay for college education. Under a proposal by Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes, students would have to meet two of four criteria to be eligible for the grants: take classes that better prepare them for college, including advanced math courses; finish in the top third of their class; maintain at least a B average; pass or be exempted from the Texas Success Initiative exam, which determines college readiness.

Health Care
Cost of Healthcare Repeal Would Cost $230 Billion

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the Republican plan to repeal the healthcare law would drive up federal deficits by $230 billion by 2021, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded this week, undercutting GOP efforts to seize the mantle of fiscal responsibility. Overturning the law President Obama signed in March would also leave 32 million more Americans without health coverage, the analysts concluded. And although health insurance premiums would be lower in some cases, the analysts estimated that without the law, consumers would get skimpier coverage and many would actually pay more because they would lose subsidies included in the new law. House Republican leaders quickly dismissed the new projection from the CBO as unrealistic. Some analysts have also questioned whether all the savings in the sweeping overhaul will be realized.

Environment
Suit Challenges California's Approval of Cancer-Causing Pesticide

Sheer desperation forced Jose Hidalgo to join a class-action lawsuit filed last week in Alameda County Superior Court, challenging California’s approval of the cancer-causing strawberry fumigant, methyl iodide. New America Media reports that on December 29th, over the strident opposition of environmental and farm worker groups, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) approved the pesticide for use by fruit and vegetable growers. Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance filed the suit on behalf of labor and environmental groups, including United Farm Workers. The suit claims, among other things, that the DPR approved methyl iodide December 20th in violation of state laws that protect groundwater against pesticide pollution. Methyl iodide is on the state’s list of cancer-causing agents, according to the suit.

Immigration
More States to Copy Arizona Immigration Law

According to a report by New America Media, the new year will bring new versions of the controversial Arizona immigration law SB 1070), particularly in states where the governors and the legislators elected in November are more conservative, reports Pilar Marrero for La Opinión. The states where this kind of immigration law is most likely to pass are Georgia, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Tennessee, according to a report released this week by the National Immigration Forum. Nearly all of these are southern and midwestern states that have in recent years seen an extraordinary influx of immigrants that they weren’t used to. But they aren’t the only ones, reports La Opinión: there are more than 25 states where legislators are attempting to copy the law, but it is not likely to be approved.

GLBT Issues
Texas Appellate Court Rules State Can't Stop Same-Sex Divorce

A state appellate court ruled this week that the attorney general has no legal standing to block a gay couple from obtaining a divorce. The Houston Chronicle reports that a three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeals declared the state had waited too long to launch a legal intervention and therefore had lost its standing in the matter. "While the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure do not impose a deadline for intervention, the general rule is that a party may not intervene after final judgment unless the judgment is set aside," the judges wrote, noting that the state didn't file its petition for intervention until the day after the district court issued its verdict on the matter. Abbott's office quickly condemned the ruling. "The Texas Constitution and statutes are clear: only the union of a man and a woman can be treated as a marriage in Texas," said Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for the attorney general. "The court's decision undermines unambiguous Texas law." Bean said the attorney general's office was examining all of its legal options in light of the appellate court's ruling.

Friday, January 7, 2011

This Week on Information Underground

This week on Information Underground our studio guest is Dr. Thomas Saving, the Director of the Private Enterprise Research Center at Texas A&M University. Our topics of conversation will include the fiscal policy problems facing Congress, as well as the current state of the social safety net programs Medicare and Social Security.

Listen to Information Underground on 89.1FM KEOS on Sundays from 5-6pm after Tavis Smiley, for all the alternative news, politics, and commentary that you don’t hear in the mainstream media. To listen to Information Underground online and to listen to past episodes visit Information Underground on BlogTalkRadio. Tune in every week to hear headlines, interviews, and political and social thought to the Left of College Station.

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Political and Social Thought to the Left of College Station

New Year’s Blogolutions

The best thing about New Year’s Day is that it is a starting point, a place from which to begin. After what feels like one of the worst years in recent memory, a new beginning is welcome. It is in that spirit that I have taken a fresh look at Left of College Station, and to rethink the way in which this blog covers politics and policy.

Over the past two and half years of publishing this blog, I have noticed a tendency to dismiss the ideas of the other side of the debate without examining them. Indeed, both the left and the right blogosphere do not engage in much constructive debate, with the exception of notable policy wonks and political analyst.

I have shied away from directly engaging the opposition in direct debate, in part because of being a political and policy novice and in part because of an unwillingness to engage in confrontation. However, after a few years of blogging about politics and policy and studying it in college, I have become much more confident in my ability to take on the challenge of the debate.

As well as providing in depth coverage on local, state, and national issues, Left of College Station is also going to be spending more time examining the other side of the debate. Once a week I will be examining the criticisms from conservatives, both the nationally known and the locally unknown. Left of College Station will also be open to guest bloggers that wish to engage with me in debate on a range of topics.

In addition to a commitment to open debate, Left of College Station will continue to cover important politics and social issues as always. The Texas Legislative Watch will continue to cover the 140 days of the 82nd Texas Legislature. Other projects will scrutinize the voting records and campaign finances of both the Bryan and College Station City Councils.

Finally, to provide more original content, I will also be publishing more easy to read quick notes and thoughts about different issues. While I will continue to provide in depth and well researched blogs, I also wanted to provide blogs that focused on specific policy or politic points.

I hope that these changes and new features will help Left of College Station become a better and more well rounded blog, and provide a quality experience for the readers. These are my New Year’s blogolutions.

If you would like to write a guest blog or have any questions feel free to email me at leftofcollegestation@gmail.com

Headlines

Local News
Bryan and College Station Enforcing Ban on K2

According to an article in the Bryan-College Station Eagle, as politicians and law enforcement across the state and nation continue to push for bans on K2, local authorities are working to enforce city ordinances that made the substance illegal in Bryan and College Station. Since this summer, when both cities passed ordinances that outlawed selling, possessing and producing K2 --a substance said to have the same effects of marijuana-- two citations have been written for possession in Bryan and seven in College Station. The crime is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is in the process of finalizing an emergency ban on five substances commonly found in K2 products, according to the DEA website. The ban will make it illegal to sell or possess any of the chemicals outlawed and designates K2 as a Schedule I substance --the same as heroin or cocaine. Locally, authorities say, a nationwide ban won't really change the way local law enforcement deals with the substance.

Local Politics
Wellborn Groups Say They Have Signatures to Force Recall Votes

The groups trying to thwart the possible annexation of Wellborn said this week they have obtained enough voters' signatures to force recall elections for two members of the College Station City Council. The Bryan-College Station Eagle reports that the announcement by Citizens for Wellborn and SaveWellborn.com came as a group of College Station residents mobilized to counter the recall campaign. The anti-annexation groups, which have targeted Mayor Nancy Berry and four council members for recall, have already collected the signatures necessary to stage recall elections of council members Katy-Marie Lyles and Dave Ruesink, according to Jane W. Cohen of Citizens for Wellborn. They have until January 10th to obtain voter signatures for all the council members. The number of signatures must equal at least 40 percent of the vote cast in the last regular municipal election for each elected official's seat. Also targeted for recall are Councilmen John Crompton and Dennis Maloney. Crompton can't run again due to term limitations, and Maloney has said he will not seek re-election. Lyles, Ruesink and Berry each have at least a year left on their respective terms. Jess Fields is the only council member unaffected by either the recall effort or next May's general election.

Texas A&M News
Texas A&M Revisits Policy After Outcry

According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, Texas A&M University officials will take a second look at a controversial decision widely seen as an attempt to prevent student journalists at Tarleton State University from investigating their own school's public records. Andrew Strong, Texas A&M's general counsel, said this week he wasn't aware of all of the facts when he crafted a letter that extended existing rules, which ban employees from abusing the Public Information Act, to include journalism students working on optional class assignments. Tarleton is part of the A&M University System. The Texas A&M rule, in effect since the mid-1990s, prohibits system employees from making public information requests of their employer. The rule was drafted after an employee used the law to make frivolous information requests, leaving A&M with the tab for the required research and compliance. The regulation went unused until the fall semester.

Texas News
Lack of Stimulus Funding Could Hit Texas Workers Hard

The federal stimulus payments that helped thousands of Texas workers ride out the recession will ebb next year, just as state legislators are likely to enact cuts that could hurt government workers and others who rely on public spending. The Dallas Morning New reports that the Recovery Act has sent about $16.5 billion to Texas state agencies since 2009. The biggest impact has been on public education, where more than 27,000 jobs were supported by stimulus funds between July and September 2010, according to the Texas Education Agency. Some employers are warning that a new burst of layoffs is coming because states can't, or won't, make up for the stimulus. Texas highway contractors are already cutting workers as new contract bids decline. And the state would cut 550 child-protective workers if the Legislature doesn't replace $23 million in stimulus funds that has paid their wages and other expenses. With $38 billion less in stimulus funds in 2012 than in 2011, states and local governments face tough choices to balance their budgets. Texas, which has endured the recession better than others, faces a projected deficit as high as $25 billion for the next two budget years.

Texas Politics
Unclear State Laws Hamper Corporate Campaign Spending in Texas

According to an article in the Austin American-Statesman, Spending by groups outside political campaigns, including corporations and unions, was a tsunami in federal elections across the country last year when compared with the trickle disclosed in state elections in Texas. The U.S. Supreme Court is credited with — or blamed — for opening the floodgates when it ruled a year ago that corporations and unions have a free-speech right to spend unlimited sums to elect or defeat candidates as long as the spending is independent of campaigns. During the 2010 elections, independent expenditures in federal elections increased fivefold from 2006, to $211 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending. By comparison, only about $360,000 was disclosed in state elections in Texas. Why? Corporations and unions spent more money at the federal level — often anonymously through associations or groups — because the Federal Election Commission allowed them. On the state level, however, the rules implementing the court's decision remained too uncertain for associations or groups of corporations to become major players in state races. Immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, the Texas Ethics Commission, acting within state law, issued rules for individual corporations or unions to disclose their spending to elect or defeat candidates. But the commission was silent on whether groups or associations have to disclose their donors and left that issue to the Texas Legislature, which will return January 11th.

War & Peace
US Military Investigates Death Squad Accused of Murdering Afghans

The US military is investigating the leadership of an army brigade whose soldiers are accused of running a "kill team" that murdered Afghan civilians, as further evidence emerges of widespread complicity in the deaths. The Guardian newspapers is reporting that a brigadier general is conducting a "top to bottom" review of the 5th Stryker brigade after five of its soldiers were committed for trial early next year charged with involvement in the murders of three Afghans and other alleged crimes including mutilating their bodies, and collecting fingers and skulls from corpses as trophies. Among the issues under investigation is the failure of commanders to intervene when the alleged crimes were apparently widely spoken about among soldiers. Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, the alleged leader of what prosecutors have characterised as a death squad based in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, is accused of planning the alleged murders in which civilians were killed with hand grenades and guns and their deaths made to appear to be legitimate battlefield casualties. Gibbs, 26, has denied three charges of murder and other crimes. Four other soldiers are charged with involvement in at least one of the three murders over a five-month period this year.

Economy
Jobless Claims Are Lowest in More Than Two Years

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, three years after the onset of the Great Recession, signs are mounting that employers might at last be starting to hire new workers. This week the Labor Department reported that new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly dropped below 400,000 last week for the first time since mid-2008 -- breaking a threshold in what economists say is a hopeful sign that the jobless rate, stuck near 10% for more than a year, might soon finally begin to edge down. The weather and the holiday peri
od may have exaggerated the improvement in what can be volatile numbers. And given the disappointing job-growth numbers for November and other economic risks such as the depressed housing market, analysts remained cautious about reading too much into the data.

Health Care
Nutrition Labels on Cuts of Meat to Debut in 2012

Those familiar nutrition labels found on everything from soda to cereal to mayonnaise will also be required on meats beginning Jan. 1, 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week. USA Today reports the new labels will list calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, protein and vitamins for 40 of the most commonly purchased cuts of beef, poultry, pork and lamb, according to an early look at the labels provided to USA TODAY. The new rules were published this week in the Federal Register. Federal officials say they hope the labels will make Americans as conscious about health choices in the meats they buy as they have become in scouring labels on other packaged food products.

Environment
Federal Court Denies Greenhouse Gas Stay for Texas

According to an article in the Texas Tribune, Texas' bid to stop the federal government's efforts to regulate greenhouse gases hit another roadblock this week, when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals turned down the state's request for a stay of a move to force states to implement federal plans. Texas has been at the forefront of efforts — including in the courts — to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. Last week the EPA announced that it would directly take over the emissions permitting process for new Texas refineries and power plants. Texas is the only state in the country refusing to implement the EPA's greenhouse gas regulations, which begin (in a limited way) in January. Environmentalists praised the court's move. The Environmental Defense Fund "urges Governor Perry and Attorney General Abbott to stop wasting tax payer dollars on frivolous lawsuits, which only seek to protect big polluters," said Jim Marston, director of the group's Texas office, in a statement.

Human Rights
Reports of Human Rights Abuses and Detentions in Pakistan

The United States is voicing concern over reports from human rights groups that Pakistan's security forces are holding thousands of political separatists without charge. Reuters news service reports that citing a State Department report to Congress last month, the New York Times reported the Obama administration was alarmed by reports that separatists, mostly from Pakistan's Baluchistan province, had been detained over the past decade and were being held incommunicado. Some of the missing were guerrillas and others civilians. The State Department report, obtained by the Times, also cited concerns that Pakistan's military had killed unarmed Taliban insurgents instead of putting them on trial. The report urged Pakistan, an important U.S. ally in the fight against Islamist insurgents, to address the issue and other rights abuses, the paper said. "There continue to be gross violations of human rights by Pakistani security forces," the report said.

Reproductive Rights
Study Debunks Research Suggesting Abortion Leads to Mental Health Problems

According to a report by the Guttmacher Institute,sStudies claiming to find a relationship between abortion and subsequent mental health problems often suffer from serious methodological limitations that invalidate their conclusions. In a new analysis, Julia Steinberg, of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and Lawrence Finer, of the Guttmacher Institute, show that the findings of a 2009 study by Priscilla Coleman et al—which claimed that women who had reported an abortion were at an increased risk of several anxiety, mood and substance use disorders, compared with women who had never had an abortion—are not replicable. Steinberg and Finer’s analysis, just published online in Social Science & Medicine, examined the same dataset as Coleman et al. (the National Comorbidity Survey) and found that in every case, the proportions of women experiencing mental health problems reported by Coleman were much larger, sometimes more than five times as large, as Steinberg and Finer’s results. The Coleman findings were also inconsistent with several other published studies using the same dataset and sample.

Women’s & Gender Issues
Inmate in Men's Prison Sues to Be a Woman

A Virginia inmate who was surgically changed from male to female as a baby has filed a lawsuit demanding to be held in a women's prison. United Press International reports that Deena Kaye Myers, or Scott Myers, is also seeking $25 million in damages under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports. The lawsuit, filed this month, also asks for a court order that her prison records be changed to show her gender as female. Myers was born male in late 1981 with a severe congenital defect that often led to gender reassignment surgery. In February 1982, a birth certificate filed in Virginia said she was a girl. In 2001, Myers was sent to prison for robbery and car theft. In the lawsuit, Myers said she was told by prison officials she could not be sent to a women's prison because she had been sentenced as a man.

GLBT Issues
Social Conservatives Pull Out Of CPAC Because Gay Group Will Attend

According to a report by Talking Points Memo, the feuding on the right continues over the gay conservative group GOProud, with two more social conservative groups announcing that they won't attend the big Conservative Political Action Conference this February -- in part because the gay group is participating. A few other social conservative organizations -- including the National Organization for Marriage, which was at last year's conference -- have also withdrawn from the event. At last year's CPAC, the bubbling dispute on the right about GOProud's role came to the surface when speaker Ryan Sorba openly condemned CPAC for allowing GOProud to the event -- after which the college-age audience of that particular function booed him.

Race & Racism
Major Law Firms Hire Fewer Women and Minorities

The nation's biggest law firms had been making impressive strides in hiring women, people of color and those with disabilities — until the recession dried up legal spending and wiped out more than 5,800 lawyers' jobs. The Los Angeles Times reports that after two years of layoffs and hiring deferrals, the proportions of women and minorities at major law firms dropped in 2010 for the first time since industry analysts began collecting demographic hiring data in the 1990s. The statistical setbacks have been marginal — less than one percentage point in each group — but they concern affirmative action advocates and law firm recruiters who fear long-term damage to the quest for lawyers who reflect the clientele and communities they serve.